Summer Of ’82: CONAN THE BARBARIAN

Every now and then there comes a year when it seems that there are an inordinate number of really good films out in theaters. Is it the result of some sort of cultural zeitgeist or is it just mere coincidence? Who can say? But what can be known for sure is that the summer of 1982 was one of those magical movies times. On the 30th anniversary of that summer we will take a look back at some of the many movies that made that summer so memorable.

“Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!”

Appropriate words, perhaps, from the film that kicked of the summer movie season of 1982 – Conan The Barbarian.

Conan the Barbarian seemed an unlikely hit at the time. An adaption of a decades-old pulp hero who only was really remembered by a relatively small group of comic book and genre fiction fans  made with the fairly modest budget of $20 million, the biggest name in the cast was actually its villain, James Earl Jones. It had no big special effects sequences like audiences were seeing in films like Star Wars or Raiders Of The Lost Ark. If anything, some of what little visual effects it did feature – like the what happens with the witch after Conan throws her into the fire – are a bit cringe-worthy, even for the time. (Although I will admit that the spirits who come to claim Conan’s soul are done stylistically well.)

But the final product is a bit more sweeping in scope than its budget would suggest, thanks to filming on location in the deserts of Spain. Director John Milius delivered sweeping panoramas of desert and rocky vistas that our heroes traversed. We travel the breadth of the mythical Hyboria, from the frozen woodlands of its north where Conan was born to its unrelenting deserts where Thulsa Doom (Jones) leaves our hero to die, crucified on the aptly-named Tree of Woe. And although it is never specifically stated, we get the impression that the film travels across a number of kingdoms and cultures based on the production and costume design of the various cities, towns and temples that Conan and his comrades journey to.

And the film is brutal, treating its violence in a very realistic and bloody way. This is definitely not a children’s fantasy adventure film. It’s as if Sam Peckinpaw had directed one of Steve Reeves’ swords-and-sandal flicks fifteen years earlier. For a genre flick to earn an R rating like Conan did wasn’t without precedent – the animated Heavy Metal got the same rating the summer previously – but it was definitely an anomaly. And it wouldn’t be the only genre film to do so this summer.

But for all of the epic sweep director John Milius instilled in the material, at the heart of its story still lies the tragedy of Conan’s life, his sense of loss and his drive for revenge. Sure, that may be some of the oldest, most base of emotions, but that is what makes it so easily connectable with. Oliver Stone’s script and Milius’s direction treats both the material and the audience intelligently. It didn’t seem to matter to them that the story was set in a mythical age and there was magic about. And it was because of that, Conan The Barbarian rises above its pulp roots to the level of serious drama.

Of course, the numerous films that followed with the intent to cash in on the Conan’s popularity missed that point entirely. Come to think of it, so did the rather abominable sequel, Conan The Destroyer. In fact, there wouldn’t be another really thoughtful, intelligent treatment of a fantasy world until Peter Jackson took on adapting J R R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings some 25 years later.

More immediate, would be the effect that the film would have on Schwarzenegger’s career. With just one movie the actor went from being a bodybuilder who was lucky enough to parley being featured in a documentary into a movie role (in the rather forgettable Hercules In New York) and a couple of television guest shots to being well on his to international superstardom. The Terminator two years later would put him over the top. I suppose, too, we could say that the film’s prophecy that Conan would eventually become a king presages Schwarzenegger’s own political career. But this story shall also be told… Just not in the summer of `82.

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About Rich Drees 6282 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty years experience writing about film and pop culture.

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